As each Marvel film comes out it becomes easier and easier to forget that there was a time not too long ago when these films looked like a major risk. The Marvel braintrust had to hope that audiences would go along with the shared universe idea which culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, and brought Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) together in one film. But The Avengers proved to be a phenomenal success, such that each subsequent installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been greeted as a major movie event. So, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has bigger shoes to fill. It’s not just the culmination of a set of films, but the blockbuster of blockbusters—in purpose if not in design. Age of Ultron is an enjoyable example of the gargantuan Hollywood blockbuster, but it succumbs to the pressure of being the king of the series. It’s not only overstuffed, but suffers from the weighty cultural expectations heaped upon it.
Without having to set up the team this time around, Age of Ultron opens with the heroes in pitched battle against the remnants of Hydra, the evil Nazi organization that had been revealed to be pulling the strings behind S.H.I.E.L.D in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, trying to recover Loki’s sceptre. (Complaints about spoilers at this juncture are a bit beside the point, since despite doing its best job to remain accessible, Age of Ultron assumes that the viewer has at least some familiarity with the main beats of the overarching MCU). It’s one of the film’s best scenes, showcasing the heroes in full battle mode and highlighting their clashing personalities—Tony Stark is chided by the upright Steve Rogers, establishing a running gag throughout the film that Captain America doesn’t like swearing. The sequence is shot mostly in long takes, tracking from one character to the next, a throw-back to the battle at the end of the first Avengers film, and we get one slow-motion moment of all the characters leaping into battle that looks pulled straight from the pages of a comic book. It’s one of the film’s best compositions, in a film that often goes for expediency over beauty. It also introduces two new superpowered twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), known in the comics as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who have been working with Hydra and have a vendetta against Tony Stark.
After recovering the sceptre, though not before Scarlet Witch (her power: “She’s weird.”) conjures up fearful visions in the main hero’s heads, the team returns to their New York headquarters for a celebratory party for having vanquished Hydra. The party makes for one of the film’s other highlights, showcasing Whedon’s gift as a writer for quips and banter, as the various Avengers hang out late into the evening and play at trying to lift Thor’s hammer. In the meantime, Tony has been utilizing the gem embedded in Loki’s sceptre to work on a secret project, a worldwide artificial intelligence defense system dubbed Ultron that will bring “peace in our time” (the irony of paraphrasing Chamberlain’s pre-WWII declaration is unremarked upon) and free up the Avengers from constantly avenging. Though as Captain America notes, attempting to end a war before it begins rarely goes well.
Whenever someone in a film like this messes with A.I., it doesn’t go well. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) gains consciousness and quickly determines that the Avengers themselves, and humanity, are actually the greatest threat to global peace. Thus, Ultron promptly attacks the heroes before using the internet to abscond his consciousness to a made-up Eastern European metropolis to plan his attack and build himself a better body in which to house his fearsome intellect. Ultron then recruits the Maximoff twins and embarks on a hunt for the elements he will use to build his new body, Vibranium—the rare metal that makes up Captain America’s shield—and a Korean geneticist, Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim).
Ultron threatens that he’s going to “tear the team apart from the inside,” and after the Avengers find the source of the Vibranium, their confrontation with Wanda’s spooky visions sends the Hulk into a mindless rage in a generic African metropolis. (I know, I know, it’s Wakanda, the sole source of Vibranium and sets up the possibility of Black Panther in a future instalment, but there’s something about Marvel comics use of real American cities contrasted with fictional foreign locales that rubs me as strangely American-centric for such a global franchise.) This event forces Iron Man to use his “Hulk-buster” suit to subdue Bruce. Pitting each hero against their worst fears would be a good use of Wanda’s super powers but the film is too busy with all the other threads to really explore the nature of the visions she conjures up. The Avengers team on display here hardly needs the Scarlet Witch to be pushed to the edge of tearing apart as they deal with functioning as a team and the consequences of Tony’s hubris. Each of their personal “ghosts” haunting them—failures to save someone, past wrongs done—function primarily as plot points. This fact flies in the face of the notion that Whedon’s films are so good at characterization, as the character’s quirks and histories merely become cogs in the narrative machine.
Writing the above plot summary is slightly exhausting and I’m sure reading it is too. But I’ve only just set up the main premises of the film for you. After the Hulk incident in Wakanda, the team is forced to hide in a safe house, which, in a somewhat touching revelation, it is revealed that one of the team members has been hiding a wife and children the whole time in order to keep them safe while their father and husband goes about avenging. The audience is treated to several of the Scarlet Witch’s visions where we are reminded of old characters from the other Marvel films (Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter and Idris Elba’s Heimdall) and some new ones (Julie Delpy as Black Widow’s original spy master). We get the beginnings of a Bruce-Natasha romance, something that isn’t really explored except in some awkward comparisons between Natasha’s formative experiences as an assassin and Bruce’s monstrous alter-ego. There is one nice moment of Natasha calming the Hulk’s rage and restoring Bruce’s control, but it’s a brief one. What is it about Natasha that allows her to reach Bruce during his Hulk-out moments? Is it her lack of fear? Something else? The film’s burdensome and overwhelming narrative stems from the desire to give everyone in the audience what they want, but it never really succeeds.
Some critics have surmised that in explicitly asking the question as to whether superheroes are heroes or monsters Age of Ultron is a direct rebuke of 2013’s Man of Steel, which ended in the devastation of Metropolis (though, I would note that devastation caused by Zod’s world machine seems to be setting up a major plot point in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). While Age of Ultron does go out of its way in its final punch-splosive finale to show the evacuation of civilians and one character’s heroic sacrifice, the film does also seem to want to have its cake and eat it too. Most of these character’s don’t think twice about killing in the line of duty. And aside from Captain America, the motivations for their avenging are murky at best.
In some ways I prefer Age of Ultron to the first Avengers. It’s riskier and as much as I like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Ultron is a greater threat to the team. Age of Ultron also ups the expansiveness that I praised in the first film, making it feel like a piece of a larger puzzle. But that is also one of its main weaknesses. The pressure on the film to be both fully integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also a major “event”—both in universe and in theatres this summer—means that it is both too long and underdone. Characters like Thor are short shrifted, all while the film introduces more and more characters that will become increasingly important in the series. Structurally, both as a narrative and in terms of editing, Age of Ultron becomes weighed down by all the different threads it’s juggling, never achieving the clarity of the crosscutting that Nolan achieved in his Batman films. While Ultron may claim “there are no strings on me,” watching the film is a little bit like connecting all the threads in a spider’s web. At a certain point, it’s questionable whether treating these stories as “movies” is the most feasible and whether the nature of serial storytelling is better served in other mediums like television. The serial nature of the Marvel series starts to work against it in that everything is always pointing to some bigger threat down the road—the Infinity Gems, the growing divide between Iron Man and Captain America. At a certain point (perhaps we’ve reached it) it starts to seriously affect the nature of the individual films which play merely as moments for fans to enjoy seeing their favourite characters while being “in the know” about what is still to come.
Marvel has been insanely successful with their films and brand, and like the heroes in the films themselves it’s both their strength and their weakness. Director Joss Whedon has said he is parting ways with the series at this point, and while I admire some of Whedon’s skills, it’s hard to imagine that anything he brought to this film won’t be replaceable as his unique voice was subordinated to the demands of the Marvel house-style—bland and uncompromising as I find it. While hardcore fans of the series will certainly be happy with Age of Ultron, and fans of blockbuster filmmaking should find it entertaining, the film never escapes from under its own shadow as the sequel to Marvel’s crown jewel. All we can do is enjoy it for the moment and brace ourselves for the next installment.
6 out of 10
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA)
Written and directed by Joss Whedon; starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Claudia Kim, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson.